Your pets benefit from exercise the same way you do—it's good for weight control, improves their mood and can be really fun. Yet sometimes it's hard to know exactly how much daily activity your pet needs, as certain breeds may have different requirements to maintain their health and overall well-being. A border collie typically needs more exercise than a Great Dane or a basset hound, for example. An older dog or cat usually needs less daily activity than a puppy or kitten. Not sure where your pet falls on the exercise spectrum? Here's a little help figuring out what a happy, healthy pet looks like.
Keep an Eye on Your Pet's Behavior
Pets that are not getting enough exercise may start to act out and show behavior problems like nosing through the trash, clawing furniture and chewing shoes. If your dog barks at you or pushes his chest to the ground while sticking his tail up in the air, he's probably inviting you to play with him. A cat might dash in front of you while you're walking, dance up to you sideways, or leap out at you—and then run away—to ask you to play. Such behaviors are typically associated with pets who are asking you to engage with them in an active way. And pay attention if a neighbor overhears barking or meowing during the day while you're away from home; a bored or underexercised pet may resort to making noise.
Weigh Your Pet Regularly
One of the easiest ways to track whether or not your pet needs more exercise is to keep an eye on his weight. If you can safely and comfortably pick your pet up, step on the scale with him, then weigh yourself without him in your arms. This is slightly trickier if your pet is tiny (try placing him or her on a digital food scale) or too big to lift (your vet's step-on scale might be the only option). Still, you can keep an eye on your pet's body condition; if visible extra fat appears or if you notice a change from the weight your vet last identified as being healthy for your pet's age and breed, it's likely time to evaluate your pet's exercise habits. Consult your vet to make sure you're feeding your pet the right amount of food for their size and age.
Ramp Up Slowly
If your dog isn't already active, slowly work up to a total of 30 to 45 minutes of walking per day, which is a good benchmark for dog activity. If you've noticed excess weight gain or some evidence of problem behavior, gradually increase the time or intensity of your dog's workout. Many dog breeds love tagging along on hiking, running or mountain-biking adventures with their owners. Or be creative: swimming, agility training, teaching new commands and getting involved in animal-assisted therapy are all great ways to give your dog exercise. If your dog is older, has health problems or exhibits soreness or stiffness after activity, check in with your veterinarian about what's safe for your pup. Also, be mindful that running through snow or sand will cause your dog to work harder than normal—and that some breeds may simply be too short to safely keep up in deep snow or sand.
Cats love to play with electronic toys, laser/pen lights, shoelaces and string toys—but sorry, cat owners, there are no specific activity guidelines for felines. Your cat will likely let you know when she or he is done playing, and will simply walk away. Motivating a naturally lazy feline may be harder; try tempting him with special toys that require active play before dispensing a treat to add incentive.
Strike a Balance between Exercise and Diet
Remember, exercise alone (without proper nutrition) isn't enough to keep your pet trim, but it does keep their minds active and their muscles strong. Do check with your veterinarian before starting a new exercise program with your pet—and also seek your vet's advice on the proper feeding program as well. And here's one final reason to strive toward reaching your pet's activity markers: chances are it'll make you healthier and more active too.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Warner.